Wednesday 30 September 2015

Poem: 'Decline Of The Hull Fishing Industry'


Miriam beheaded cod,
fishscale beaded.
Claimed engagement to a man
trawler-bound off Iceland,
but she’d forget –
for a while, if
I would understand

Her knife disembowelling
head to tail, turning
innards, bloodless, pale,
their stink remaining

We met at a party,
she laughed easily and
did most of the talking.
I bought her drinks and
drove her home in a
battered white Transit van
– past the dock-fronts,
cranes black against blackness,
and terraced houses in
reticulated rows, streetlamp paced
– imagining those delicate fingers
dextrously tossing corpses
into ice, gleaming dead
fish eyes coming adrift.
We made vague plans but
I was a little too drunk
and she had me park
a street away
to allay Icelandic guilt,
but every time the wind
comes in from the east
redolent of fish
I catch Miriam laughing,
beaded with cod-eyes and scales

And now the trawlers rust
and the docks silt
and I still see
those fingers

Published in:
‘MINOTAUR no.5’ (USA - October 1981)
‘RUSTIC RUB no.2’ (July 1994 - UK)
‘CHOKING ON HONEY no.1: formerly ‘I SEE EMERALDS’ (March 1999 - UK)
‘THE PENNILESS PRESS no.18’ (Nov 2003 – UK)
and the collection:
‘POWER LINES’ Unibird Publications (Oct 1988 - UK)



 In 1967 COUNTRY JOE & THE FISH were on 
the leading edge of what was termed the ‘Counter Culture’, 
and what the world remembers as the ‘Hippie Summer of Love’. 
But classic psychedelic albums like ‘FEEL LIKE I’M FIXIN 
TO DIE’ and their Woodstock Movie ‘Fish Cheer’ are only 
part of the story. Country Joe McDonald was an activist 
before all that began. And he’s still there, still doing it now… 

“into my life on waves of electrical sound 
and flashing lights she came, 
into my life with the twist of a dial…” 

I first encounter Country Joe McDonald in flickering calor-gas light, hunched over a fold-down table spidering his running order on a pad in biro. “Entertainment Is My Business”, “Janis”, “Tricky Dicky”, “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, and “Feel Like I’m Fixin To Die”. He pauses to slurp Stones Bitter from the plastic tub I’ve plied him with. Then glances down the Caravan that doubles as his Dressing Room for the duration of this ‘Leeds Folk Festival’. Geoff Francis, some-time distributor for Joe’s ‘Rag Baby Records’, sits there describing a National Lampoon satire called ‘Lemmings’, a concept-album about an ecologically-minded quasi-‘Woodstock’ where the audience commit mass suicide to alleviate world over-population. This fictional Festival also features the first and last appearance of Crosby Stills Nash Marx & Engels (wrapped in tinfoil to attract lightning during the rain-chant), and there’s John Denver singing “Eating The Baby Raw”…

“He wasn’t there” corrects Joe precisely. “John Denver, he wasn’t there. You mean John Sebastian?”

Strange to realise, suddenly, that this genial guy sat here in faded blue jeans and T-Shirt, ballpoint and pad in hand, is part of that Woodstock mythology that National Lampoon are sending up. Country Joe and The Fish, remember? ‘Electric Music For The Mind And Body’ (1967, Vanguard), ‘I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die’ (1967, Vanguard) and ‘Together’ (1968, Vanguard)? It seems light-years away that critic Lillian Roxon was writing ‘no riot or rally at Berkeley in its big historic years, ‘66 and ‘67, was complete, or even possible, without The Fish’. But although they’re remembered as the definitive psychedelic band CJ&F were never just that. The so-called ‘Counter-Culture’ was about diversity and change, about being open to influences, and using those influences creatively.

 Joe McDonald was never suckered by the fashion-accessory elements of Hippie kitsch, but instead continued to apply the constant factors of that openness, creativity and intelligence, across the years that followed. In the process he built a stack of solo albums that, although sometimes flawed, have rarely failed to come up with interesting and lyrically challenging music. From ‘War War War’ (a 1971 Vanguard album setting Joe’s songs to Robert W Service’ World War I poems), ‘Paradise With An Ocean View’ (1975, Fantasy), ‘Peace On Earth’ (1984, Rag Baby) and ‘Vietnam Experience’ (1986, Rag Baby) – to now, when he’s become a voice commenting from the sidelines, the constant irritant of conscience.

In a caravan, in Leeds, he resumes sketching out his set, a Dave Van Ronk song, then “Oh Jamaica”, “Here I Go Again” (the hit song he wrote for Twiggy), “Let It Rain”, “Coyote”, “Save The Whale”, and “Get It All Together”, while I edge my ITT cassette recorder forward, and ask:-

ANDREW DARLINGTON: Was it a personal bring-down for you when all that Sixties thing finished? You were tied closely to that ‘Movement’, it seemed to be an unstoppable upward gradient, then all of a sudden the 1970’s arrived and it was Donny Osmond and Glam-Rock.

JOE McDONALD: You shouldn’t... erm, nothing ever stopped. The media stopped covering it. That’s what happened. And it was... well, I’m not really a person that’s in love with having a high profile anyway, y’know? But there was a certain backlash within the industry which was a little disappointing, as regards all Sixties musicians, they weren’t really treated with the respect that they should have had perhaps. But it’s water under the bridge now. The media chooses to focus on certain things at different times, I suppose it has its orders from somewhere, but as far as the ‘Woodstock Nation’ or the ‘Counter Culture’ or whatever you want to call it, it was going on before the Sixties, it went on straight through the Seventies and Eighties, and it’s still going on now.

AD: I get the impression you were involved before the thing happened big in media terms, and after it had died down too. That you’ve continued on pretty much the same lines and largely ignored the hype circus.

JD: Well, yeah. Of course there’s certain things that I couldn’t have been involved in before, but I’ve been involved in progressive issues and music for my whole life. But, for instance, I mean – even ‘Greenpeace’ in the Fifties was into nuclear testing, but not really Saving Whales. They were in the Pacific Islands with boats stopping the testing. They got busted by the French. They go back a long ways. Everything goes back a long ways. Not in the media, but in real life. But a lot of the changes in the Sixties really altered civilisation as we know it, and I still think you can feel it.

AD: You did the ‘Thinking Of Woody Guthrie’ (1969, Vanguard) tribute album, and on your later ‘Animal Tracks’ (1983) you did Woody Guthrie’s “Let’s Go Riding”. And to an extent you seem to operate in a kind of Guthrie role. As a ‘Social Commentator’.

JM: Except that I’m not.... except that I don’t take my orders from the Left Wing. That was Woody Guthrie’s mistake. He was a great songwriter, a great writer and a great artist, but – it’s not until recently that things like his ‘Seeds of Man’ book have been allowed to even come out. His material was controlled mostly by political Left Wingers, and so that’s the kind of material that you heard and that got published. And I tend to make everybody nervous for the most part. Left Wing included. I’ve been ‘Eighty-Sixed’, as we say, from most Left Wing organisations for years and years. ‘Cos I grew up into that.

AD: Don’t you think it helps to work within some kind of ideological framework?

JM: No. I think it’s dangerous. Nobody knows what’s going on, and anybody who thinks they know what’s going on long enough to establish an organisation based on that idea is a little bit crazy if you ask me. No-one knows what’s going on. No-one’s ever known what’s going on yet. But someday everybody will know what’s going on. But it won’t be us, it’ll be generations from now. It’s very hard to figure out the galaxy and everything... (Joe gives a low laugh, waves dismissively with a plastic spoon he’s in the process of devouring a tray of vegetable goo with)

AD: So what ideas are you true to? Your own personal interpretations and definitions?

JM: Well, as an artist, yeah. I deal with my own personal interpretations. But I try to change all the time, that’s something important. Just to know people who are changing all the time, and just trying to figure out the right answers, y’know? It gets easier as you go along, and you have some hints y’know. Like, dying isn’t so great. And being alive is generally pleasant.

AD: Do you still enjoy performing?

JM: Oh yeah. I love performing. Specially under certain conditions. This kind of thing, like a Festival, I really love, it’s gonna be a lot of fun. I do half acoustic and half electric. I mean, I’ve been doing this solo thing for a long time, and it’s getting kinda boring to me. And the entertainment business is death when you start being bored with your own act. It doesn’t take an audience long to figure that out. So I like doing electric things with a band, and a few solo things too, I do a few Benefits at home solo.

AD: In parallel with your solo career you’ve always maintained a working relationship with other ex-members of the Fish. There was a ‘Country Joe & The Fish’ re-union tour around…

JM: ...1979. The anniversary of Woodstock. But that wasn’t the full line-up. That wasn’t Bruce (Barthol) and Chicken (Hirsch) and Dave (Cohen), it was other people (including bassist Pete Albin formerly of Big Brother & The Holding Company and guitarist Bob Flurie).

AD: Then there were announcements of a re-union to coincide with your 1984 ‘Peace On Earth’ album and tour (while Joe also issued ex-Fish Barry Melton’s LP ‘Level With Me’ (1981) on his Rag Baby Records label). Will there be other Fish-related projects?

JM: It’s not a matter of... it’s a matter of the right time, y’know. And Barry, yes. He’s an attorney now. I know he’s busy in his Lawyers business. He passed the Bar, and he never went to school for it. He did it all by correspondence course. It took him ten years. But he’s a Solicitor. So there you are. It just goes to show you what perseverance can do!

AD: You also had a ‘straight’ job at one time, ‘Red Star Music’, a store selling instruments.

JM: You’re remarkably well-informed. That didn’t last long. ‘Red Star’ yeah, but it didn’t... that was what I would call a fiasco. While Barry’s sitting for the Bar has turned out to be a big success.

AD: Is there a clear difference between work you do on stage and in the studio? For some bands it’s a completely different discipline.

JM: Well. I try to do as much on the stage as I do in the studio. But then, truth of the matter is that it is two different experiences. When you’re listening to music at home, particularly on the headphones, it takes on the quality of a modern motion picture in that you’re sucked into the Movie. You’re completely sucked into the thing you’re listening to when you’ve got your headphones on. Or you’re in the Disco and it’s up really loud, and your eyes are not really working. Your imagination and your ears and your brain are working, but when you’re in a concert your eyes are working much more than your ears. And that’s why most live records sound pretty terrible.

AD: Do you have strong opinions on the current sampling and sequencer Dance music that dominates the radio, Clubs and charts?

JM: Syntho-Rock? Techno-Rock? I really love it. Computers and synthesisers are the future music of the planet, that’s for sure. But you can’t change into the future without understanding the past. That’s stupidity. Like I said, I’ve just finished over ten years of playing, searching around traditional roots, because in the Sixties I didn’t have much chance to do that. But in the Fifties that’s what I was doing. And I have a tape music magazine where we feature some, like, roots of modern music and things like that. And so I’ve been doing, like, acoustic Folk, American traditional music, things most people don’t even know anything about anymore. But in spite of our attachment to traditional music – or traditional anything, the past is wrong and the future is correct. As a general rule. If you want to be a competent musician nowadays you have to know where it came from. Even internationally it’s a very difficult business. And you have to know all the modern stuff too, and project your own image onto that.

AD: When we spoke earlier you mentioned that on your first Country Joe & The Fish album (‘Electric Music For The Mind And Body’) you used ‘a little influence of John Cage, and David Tudor concepts’. They are still respected names.

JM: Are they? At the time that was very radical, very radical stuff, but now... it’s not. Well, that’s the roots of modern synthesiser music, I suppose. At the time everybody thought they were just crackpots. But now – compared to some modern avant garde music, it’s pretty conservative stuff. I’m not a big fan. I’m essentially a Pop musician and my roots are in traditional music. Traditional classical music, and traditional Folk music. I’m really not... but, I do have some things in the can which are not music at all! So I guess I’m lying about that (laughter). There are some tracks on my recent albums which are really... I don’t know. I think I’d have difficulty arguing that they are music at all actually, in the traditional sense.

AD: On your ‘Child’s Play’ album (1983, Rag Baby) you use what you call ‘Environments’. A technique of placing each song in some kind of context by the use of stereo sound effects. Background restaurant noises on the track “Not In A Chinese Restaurant” for example. The motives sound not dissimilar to those of people like Brian Eno who create ‘ambient music’ albums. Music intended for different settings, like his ‘Music For Airports’

JM: I’m more inclined to do music in airports!

AD: for the car?

JM: No. rather music in the car. Music you can play while you’re in the car – so it would be a case of music IN the car, FOR the car! Music IN the airport, FOR the airport. I mean, ‘cos when you have your Walkman – or whatever you call those tape recorders – WalkPERSONS, you can really put yourself just about anywhere, can’t you? But one thing you’re gonna be sure of in my music is that I’m not gonna put you in the studio anymore. And I can’t really guarantee what’s going to happen in that studio while we’re cutting tracks. That’s a little element of surprise. It’s sorta like not knowing if they’re going to drop the bomb or not.

AD: Your de-gendering the ‘Walkperson portable’ reminds me of your mixed-gender anti-sexist All-Star Band. That band and album (the 1973 ‘Paris Sessions’) with its Feminist bias seemed like a very brave project. Do you think those ideas still stand up?

JM: Well, that album certainly stands up, yes. It’s kinda the roots of Feminism in a way, you know – from a male point of view. It was the only thing of its kind around at that particular time. It was very radical. That band had three women musicians in it. I have a million stories from that band. It was only together a year-and-a-half but the things that happened to that band were like the ‘Adventures Of The Furry Freak Brothers’ or something. Really. I mean, people just could not understand that there was a woman playing the piano and a woman playing the drums and a woman playing saxophone. They didn’t understand that. The promoters didn’t understand that, the Press didn’t understand that, the audience didn’t understand that. They saw and heard something else. It was like ‘Alice In Wonderland’, or Science Fiction schizophrenia or something. I had to throw one Reporter out of the Dressing Room because he kept demanding to know who the girl backing singers were. He’d seen the whole show! So I introduced everybody in the band to him and I told him we didn’t have any background singers. Then he wrote all the names down and then he wanted to know the background singers names! And that routine went on somewhat like ‘Monty Python’ for about thirty minutes. He began frothing and I had to have him removed from the room, and as he left he was screaming “you must be crazy, I just wanna know the names of the BACKING SINGERS...!!!!”

AD: Like the only musical role he could envisage for women was as backing singers? Or groupies perhaps, but not as musicians?

JM: We were playing in the mid-West in some rather large Mafia-like Club in a town, y’know, and I came back with Anna Rizzo who was playing drums at the time, and Tucki Bailey who was playing sax. We walked into the club and went up to the Bouncer, and the guy at the... it was a little ticket-booth sort of thing. Well, it wasn’t a booth, it was just a podium sort of thing. And I said ‘I’m Country Joe, where’s the Dressing Room?’ And he said ‘just go straight through there, turn left, but the Chicks have to have passes’. And I said ‘no problem, it’s the drummer and the sax player. Let’s go’. We started to walk in and he just went ‘WHUUUMP!!!’, dropped his hand right down and said ‘I’m sorry, but you know, the Chicks have to have passes’. I said ‘this is the BAND, and we’re going to the Dressing Room if you don’t mind’. And he said ‘YOU can go, it’s OK, I’m telling you, your Dressing Room is down the hall to the left. But the CHICKS have to have passes’. So Tucki and Anna are starting to crack up now, they’re really laughing like crazy now. But I’m starting to get a little bit ticked off. So I said to this guy ‘I don’t know what your problem is, if you’re retarded or something, but THIS is the saxophone player, THIS is the drummer. I’M Country Joe. THIS IS THE BAND. And WE’RE GOING TO THE DRESSING ROOM!’ He was a very large person too. And he said ‘I’m really sorry man, I don’t want any hassles or anything, but the Chicks are GONNA HAVE TO HAVE PASSES!’ And I said ‘WHERE’S THE FUCKING MANAGER?’, y’know. And this guy standing beside there flashed this Police Badge in front of my face and said ‘don’t use that language in front of those women’. He was a plain-clothes Cop who had been standing there next to this guy all the time! And when he did that Tucki and Anna were just sort of rolling on the floor in laughter. And then they were laughing at the situation so hard they were just cracking up, and the Cop didn’t know what to do. He started blushing because he thought he’d saved the day. Then Tucki and Anna started saying ‘you ought to hear what he makes us listen to during the show!’ Anyway, finally the owner of the Club came and he said to the guy ‘let ‘em in’. And then we went in. But that was a common occurrence with that band. I’m telling you, it’s a case of, sometimes you’re doing something which is like, advanced, and it’s incomprehensible. It does not compute. I think that a lot of Animal Liberation is like that at the moment. It’s one of those things, it does not compute. And at that particular time, which was 1971, Feminism didn’t compute.

AD: I wonder if Kim Deal had those problems when she was with the Pixies? Or Gillian out on New Order? Or the Spice Girls! It’s a lot healthier now where musicians are accepted on their merits rather than their race ore gender.

JM: Female bands! Female stars! They’re all over the place! I mean, it’s really hard for a man in this business nowadays. Really. When you think about it, how many famous women singers and women musicians there are, Bonnie Raitt, the Hearts, in New Wave, Sheryl Crow, there’s more and more...! (the interview breaks down in waves of laughter).

It’s usual for journalists to edit interviews, rearranging, selecting, and in some cases rewriting conversations. It’s impossible to fully convey Joe’s humour, or the circuitous process of his arguments without presenting them intact, without alteration. Hence I’ve kept omissions to a minimum, and not corrected the usual false starts and repetitions that inevitably crop up in conversation. Joe McDonald is an intelligent and very likeable performer with a unique way of fusing humour and perception, the most valuable aspects of the past with the most urgent concerns of today. Hopefully this comes across best when he’s allowed to speak for himself.

“be the first one on your block 
to have your boy come home in a box…” 

Tuesday 29 September 2015

Edgar Allan Poe: The Original Imp Of The Perverse


 An overview based around the book ‘VISIONS OF POE’, a 
selection of EDGAR ALLAN POE stories and poems with 
photographs and an introduction by SIMON MARSDEN 
(Michael Joseph/ Webb & Bower, £14.95) 

those little slices of death, 
how I hate them...’ 
 (Edgar Allan Poe, quoted on the introduction to 
 ‘Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors’)

A gothic window from Castle Bernard, County Cork, mist-shrivelled, ivy-entangled. Perspective is vague, so that at first glance it’s a plundered grave, then it’s a door opening out onto a dread landscape of mystery and inexpressible terror. But no, it’s only a window. Then there’s a stone cadaver etched against the wall of Beaulieu House, County Louth. A grinning skeleton, a macabre victim of a premature burial or the Red Death plague, obscenely disinterred and left there to putrefy. But no, it’s only a particularly grotesque sculpture.

The photographs, from ‘Visions Of Poe’ (Michael Joseph/ Webb & Bower, £14.95, 1998) were snared by the artful Pentax of Simon Marsden whose previous work includes ‘In Ruins’ (revised edition, Little Brown, 1997), a highly personal photographic essay of churches and historic buildings in his native southern Ireland. On such evidence it’s obvious that Marsden uses his lens not just to record – but to interpret, selecting his targets, his lighting and angles, to build atmosphere. In this case to illuminate a sympathetic descent into the maelstrom of psychological horror created by the fiction and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, examples of which are matched to Marsden’s pictures – there’s “The Raven”, “The Fall Of The House Of Usher”, “The Masque Of The Red Death” and others.

Poe was a dark fantasist, with a natural perversity he considered to be a universal condition. ‘His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre. There are some who would have thought him mad’ Poe writes of Prince Prospero – the decadent aristo who seals himself into his castle to escape the ravages of the ‘Red Death’. A man whose works are ‘delirious fancies such as the madman fashions. There were much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little that which might have excited disgust.’ Poe could have been describing his own art, which is riddled with recurrent necrophilia, disease, cannibalism, demonic possession, resurrection of the dead, madness, mesmerism and premature burial, all described in a deliciously morbid prose that lingers on decay and death.

Born in the Michael Dukakis city of Boston over two-hundred years ago – 19 January 1809, Edgar Poe was immediately orphaned. His father, the Irish actor David Poe, deserted the family in 1810 and died soon afterwards. His mother – Elizabeth, died of pneumonia a year later. The middle name ‘Allan’ he took from the stepfather and benefactor he alternately vilified and, when finances deemed it necessary – fawned over. The young Poe was ‘removed’ from the University of Virginia for immoderate drinking and gambling which amassed debts of $2,500, and was subsequently court-martialled from West Point Military Academy for deliberate neglect of duty.

He nevertheless went on to reasonable success as editor of various periodicals – ‘The Southern Literary Messenger’ and ‘Graham’s Magazine’, minor triumphs again sabotaged by his personality problems which tended to terminate each position with the sour fetor of acrimony. He was neither a pleasant, nor an easy work colleague. In mitigation, Poe’s notorious drink problem was exaggerated by a diabetic condition, complicated by a ‘brain lesion’ that rendered him particularly succeptible to alcohol. His use of opium and laudanum is also well-documented, but hardly exceptional at an time when such tinctures were the widely-accepted valium of their day. More genuinely odd is his marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia, who was already ill with the tuberculosis that was to kill her. The ‘consumption’ that seems to have been a source of Poe’s unhealthy fixation – not unconnected to the memory of his mother’s death. 

Dour and melancholic, Poe favoured neat black clothes. He was socially ill at ease, his conversations as precise and formal as his writing was meticulous. He wrote poems. He wrote protean Science Fiction that influenced HP Lovecraft, and Jules Verne – to whom Poe was ‘le créateur du roman merveilleux-scientifique.’ He wrote detective fiction, including ‘The Murders In The Rue Morgue’ (‘Graham’s Magazine’, April 1841) from which his ‘C Auguste Dupin’ served as A Conan Doyle’s model for ‘Sherlock Holmes’. But above and beyond these things, Poe created an image. The image is dark and malevolently brooding. The image is Gothic horror, a nightmarish fiction of all-pervading repulsion so obsessive that it survives and even subsumes its persistent reinterpretation by literary critics, symbolists, Freudians – and film-makers. From a single short story sequence novelist-scripter Richard Matheson was able to flesh out an entire movie – the Vincent Price/ John Kerr 1962 chiller ‘The Pit And The Pendulum’. Roger Corman, whose series of Poe adaptations stand as his most startlingly disturbing work, similarly expanded the seven-page prose-poem ‘The Masque Of The Red Death’ (in ‘Graham’s Magazine’, May 1842), into a horrifically effective full-length film that inhabits Poe’s mythos remarkably accurately, its malign spell absorbing and colouring all additional invention into itself like a spreading bloodstain. Corman’s ‘The Fall Of The House Of Usher’ (1960) with Vincent Price is a wide-screen shocker pervaded by a genuinely flesh-crawling atmosphere, while Boris Karloff joins Price and Peter Lorre in Corman’s special-FX classic ‘The Raven’ (1963), announced as ‘The Macabre Masterpiece Of Terror’.

In much the same way, Simon Marsden’s photographs not so much illustrate Poe’s stories as are infected by their bacillus, they enter Poe’s twisted vision, they draw vile energies from his morbidly introspective fascinations, and peer out through the distorting lens of his perversity.

Poe died – as that heavily over-written scenario demands he must, in grotesquely romantic squalor. After failed suicide attempts, bouts of insanity, fits and delirium tremens, he was on his way to Richmond to marry himself out of penury, when he disappeared during a stop-over in Baltimore. He was found much later on the street in a wretched condition. Following four days of hospitalised raving he groaned ‘lord, help my poor soul,’ and died. He was aged just forty.

 Edgar Allan Poe’s life has been described as ‘a long slow suicide,’ the black drugs ‘n’ booze aspects of which were posthumously exhumed by decadent French poet Charles Baudelaire who helped embellish them into the unshakably powerful literary mythology that persists. It was left to Anthony Burgess to question that myth in an ‘Observer’ book review (15 January 1978) by pointing out that ‘Poe’s life, though wretched enough, was not exceptionally so. It was the life of any writer struggling in a world devoted to commercial values.’ What makes Poe’s work so exceptional – Burgess argues, is his apparent self-absorption in that ‘wretchedness’ which – like Marsden’s camera, tints and taints all of his life-experience, and all of his creative perceptions. Poe was rigidly agnostic, a man who – according to expert fantasist Sam Moskowitz, ‘knew that the ultimate damnation lay in the distortion of a man’s own inner consciousness and not in any supernatural event’ (‘Science Fantasy’ no.38). 

Irregular, querulous and eccentric, unacknowledged in life and unmourned in death, Poe casts a long and blackening shadow that’s now exquisitely reinterpreted through the demonic gargoyles and macabre mansions in Simon Marsden’s ‘Visions Of Poe’.

‘dreaming dreams 
no mortals ever dared to dream before…’ 
(Edgar Allan Poe from ‘The Raven’)

Monday 28 September 2015


Book Review of: 
(Headpress / Critical Vision - £13.95 / $19.95 - 
ISBN 190048613X) 

What’s so funny ‘bout Peace Love and Understanding? Well, nothing. Except that TV-clips of Hippies in silly hats, idiot-dancing, and human-daisy-chains in the park, are in danger of eclipsing the significance of what really went on in those down-dirty late-sixties. ‘Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair’– of course, but chances are that Charles Manson will also show up at the Love-In. For every Woodstock there’s an Altamont. For every Flower-Child, a Street-Fighting Man.

David Huxley’s valuable research into one particularly neglected cranny of the era, magicked into life by the lavish visual explosions provided by Headpress lay-out – vividly visceral, explicit, disturbing… and fun, goes some way towards redressing that (sub)cultural imbalance. Comics – or ‘Comix’ are his thing. The strips that ran in the ‘underground’ periodicals, and their more specialised comic-book spin-offery. More specific yet, their British manifestations. Artists such as Hunt Emerson. Tracing his lines, which form garish detonations of ludicrous invention, fluid – but angular. Faces, shapes, and figures in dynamic melt-down, vibrating with psychedelic energies. Elaborate spirals and coils of brain-matter, goggle-eyes veiny and drifting free from their sockets like loose balloon moons…

Comic-strips and animation have always been something of a cultural oddity. Their exaggerations are implicitly surreal. Think ‘Desperate Dan’ – no, really think about it. What the hell is that about? Think about the open-ended repetitive non-story structure of ‘Wylie C. Coyote & the Roadrunner’. Existential ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ or what? And it’s always been slightly subversive too. As far back as you can go Political Cartoons have been a weapon of ridicule against the corrupt pomposity of the ruling class. The sixties-cum-early-seventies had no monopoly on any of this. What it did do was reignite it all through new mix-and-max outrage combinations. Through a generation of new artists, Robert Crumb among them, illuminating the youthquake happening all around them. And by their being independently published through the new global phenomenon of disreputable titles calling itself the ‘underground press’, made possible by the proliferating cheap accessibility of offset print-technology. It also benefited from good timing.

The gore-overkill of Will Gaines’ 1950’s manic over-the-top EC ‘Tales From The Crypt’ led to questions in the House, and the subsequent imposition of the Comics Code, ushering in the gentler mockery of ‘Mad’, and an interlude of squeaky-clean aspirational UK comics following the pristine parentally-approved example of ‘Eagle’. So ensuring that a decade-long frustration built up among cartoon-artists, and a sleaze-thirsty readership, a combination that was bound to blow sooner, rather than later. More? Fuelling the ‘underground’, as well as exotic drugs, trippy vinyl, and a retro-affection for Aubrey Beardsley there were reference points to Marcuse’s ‘Frankfurt Circle’ – a New Left Think-Tank, McLuhan’s ‘The Medium Is The Massage’ proclaiming the end of literacy as we know it, and the dawn of Homo Ludens – the ‘Play-Power’ ethic. All conspiring together to show that absurdity, stupidity, chaos and black humour are just as valuable philosophical constants as logic, reason and rationality. Ideal ingredients, in fact, for graphic excess.

Initially the visual dimension of the UK titles – ‘It’, ‘Friends’, ‘Oz’, ‘Styng’ and the rest, was characterised by an over-reliance on American reprints (Crumb’s ‘My First LSD Trip’, Gilbert Sheldon’s ‘Wonder Wart-Hog’). But the early local contingent soon includes Jeff Nuttall’s free-form cut-up ‘Physiodelics’, Mick Farren’s scripts for Edward Barker, the ‘Largactilites’, Chris Welch – creator of the odd SF-saga ‘Ogoth’ who doubled by reviewing Pop singles for ‘Melody Maker’, Hunt Emerson’s debut in Birmingham Arts Lab’s ‘Large Cow Comix no.1’ through to his ‘Thunderdogs’ mayhem in 1980 and ‘Firkin The Cat’ for ‘Fiesta’, Brian Bolland’s ‘Little Nympho In Slumberland’ in ‘Graphixus no.3’, Mal Burns, Bryan Talbot, and much more.

Michael Moorcock’s innovative SF-fantasia ‘Jerry Cornelius’ was serialised through issues of ‘Frendz’. As regards self-contained titles, ‘Cyclops’ – at just 15p from the ‘Innocence & Experience Press’, cover-proclaims itself ‘The first English Adult Comic Paper’ in July 1970, followed by Felix Dennis’ ‘COZmic Comics’ – no.3 of which consists entirely of British artist Mike Weller’s work. Then the spectrum of titles runs from Alchemy Publications’ ‘Brainstorm Comix’ with a no.1 print-run of 3,500, to Joe Hirst’s modest Bamforth-derived spirit-duplicated naughtiness via Filey-based Fiasco Press. From ‘Napalm Kiss’ to Robert Crumb’s celebrated orgy-spread highlighting ‘Nasty Tales no.1’.

And the Establishment played its scripted part to perfection. We’ll be outraged – it said, if you’ll be outrageous. They were duly outraged. They took the ‘Oz’ Skool-Kids issue to the Old Bailey, and busted ‘Nasty Tales’ for obscenity. Both shock-chic stories are fully recounted here by David Huxley (who modestly omits his own art-contributions to Denis Gifford’s ‘Ally Sloper’, ‘Blood, Sex & Terror’, ‘StreetQuomix’, and ‘Either Orcomics’, while admitting to an SF weirdo in ‘Pssst’). And – although falling outside this book’s time-frame, the tradition of legalistic repression continues into the 1990’s when ‘Savoy Editions’ artist-publisher Dave Britton is jailed for the immaculately nasty ‘Lord Horror’ comic-books.

So where did it all go? Well, it continues to continue in grubby low-profile photocopied small-press editions. ‘Viz’ graduated from bedroom fanzine into a corporate institution. ‘2000AD’ – launched by IPC as a continuity of the ‘Eagle’-mentality, complete with an updated Dan Dare, discovered its long-term survival strategy through more sophisticated adult material with enough severed heads, erupting eyeballs and gratuitous nudity to bring a macabre glow to Will Gaines’ tomb. Both titles thrive. While Shelton’s collected ‘Furry Freak Brothers’ are out there on Amazon even now, alongside the lavish graphic-novel editions of DC and Marvel comic-book heroes, their drug-wise antics just as sniggery-relevant to today’s pharmaceutical tastes as they were Cheech-&-Chong-wise back then. Robert Crumb is the subject of at least one docu-movie, with a spin-off soundtrack CD. Felix Dennis – once ‘Oz’ wunderkind, is a media fat-cat with a sideline in self-publishing his own poetry. And now David Huxley’s cool academic prose preserves, keenly analyses, places in context and neatly squares the cartoon frame of the best of the rest. Cool. Groovy. Highly recommended…

 Published in: 
‘DREAMBERRY WINE (Jan-Feb)’ (UK – Jan 2004) 
‘SONGBOOK no.2’ (UK – Feb 2004) 
‘MONOMYTH no.14’ (UK – May 2004)